The Future of Pickleball: An Economic Perspective
By Krishi Kishore
Pickleball is currently the fastest growing sport in the United States with over 4.8 million players in 2021 and an 11.5% average annual growth rate over the past 5 years. The sport was invented in 1965 by three fathers, including the late U.S. Representative Joel Pritchard, on Bainbridge Island, Washington. It tends to be a hybrid between badminton and table tennis, played on a tennis-style court.
The sport garnered notoriety primarily during the Covid-19 pandemic, experiencing player growth of 21.3% from 2019 to 2020 and 14.8% from 2020 to 2021. The primary appeal of the sport comes from its ease of learning and inclusivity of players across all age groups, making the sport very accessible. Many celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Melinda Gates, and the Kardashians have become involved in playing pickleball. Many high-net-worth individuals have also invested in Major League Pickleball (MLP) like internet figure Gary Vaynerchuk and hedge fund manager Marc Lasry.
Pickleball shows significant untapped potential from an economic perspective when compared to its counterpart sport, tennis. Tennis had 87 million worldwide players in 2019—almost 20 times the number of pickleball players. Yet, the differences in total prize money between pickleball and tennis are much starker: in May 2022, Major League Pickleball (MLP) announced the prize money for all of 2022 would be $1 million spread over three events. For reference, just the four Grand Slam tournaments in tennis have a combined total prize money of about $208 million in 2022, which is more than 200 times the total prize money of the largest pickleball league.
As a result of the significantly lower amount of prize money available in tournaments, pickleball players are not able to earn as much as their tennis counterparts as it stands. For example, the current pickleball world champion is Benjamin Johns, who has an estimated prize money of $146,325 after winning more than 50 gold medals. On the other hand, Roger Federer, one of the world’s most renowned tennis players, has 103 titles and more than $130 million in career prize winnings. Having about double the number of titles as Johns, Federer has more than 880 times the prize money. This demonstrates the vast differences in prize money for players at the same level in each respective sport. As pickleball continues to rapidly grow in popularity, the sport will be able to garner more sponsors, advertisers, television rights, and ticket sales, which will subsequently increase prize winnings at major pickleball tournaments.
Comparing the phases of growth, both in terms of players and financially, between tennis and pickleball also sheds light onto the high potential for pickleball to grow. In regards to phases of growth in the sport, tennis participation grew by 44% from 2000 to 2009 but declined by 5% from 2010 to 2019, signaling a plateau in the popularity of tennis. In contrast to tennis, pickleball has only achieved an annual growth rate of 11.5%, which is just above 25% of the peak growth of tennis—another indication of the large growth potential for pickleball before reaching a point of plateau. Wimbledon, one of the four major Grand Slam tournaments in tennis, had total prize money of £593,366 in 1982. This number had almost doubled in 1983 with prize money of £978,211. In 2021, the total prize money of the tournament stood at £35,016,000, equating to a compound annual growth rate in prize money of about 11%. In contrast, the U.S.A. Pickleball National Championship had prize money of $75,000 in 2018, but in 2022, the competition is slated to have prize money of $150,000, representing a compound annual growth rate of about 19%. This hints at the faster growth in prize money in pickleball compared to tennis in recent years, demonstrating the financial potential for the sport.
Ultimately, pickleball appears to show large potential to grow as a sport and as a business. As more investors, including celebrity investors, fund the growth of pickleball, the sport will reach wider audiences and encourage new players to get involved. Pickleball leagues will need to determine how to best go about making tournaments attractive to players by increasing prize earnings, while sustaining the growth of the sport.